Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Seeing the Alhambra

The Alhambra (al-Qasr al-Hamra) in Granada is one of the most stunning buildings in the world. Its late-Islamic Andalucian decorations are breathtaking in their intricacy and delicacy, and the newly-renovated Patio de los Leones (بهو السباع) has to count, in my book, as one of the most perfect man-made spaces in the world.

Patio de los Leones arches
This week was the second time I’ve visited the Alhambra, and one of the things that struck me is the different ways one person experiences the same place at different time and different conditions. There are the obvious elements to this – the fact that from one moment to the next we are never quite the same person, with the same reactions and influences. But some more specific issues in ‘seeing’ made me think this time.

Firstly, last time I visited, I was explicitly doing so as a writing exercise, with assigned tasks in relation to noting and describing the place and my experiences of it. This time was on one hand a leisure trip, but also I had a different assignment – to take not only my own photographs but those for a friend who is less likely than me to return to this place, and who wanted to be able to soak up the entire experience without the mediation of a lens. In my own seeing of the place through two different media, it seemed that writing made me concentrate on generalities, on the sense of place, of atmosphere and effect. Photography, however, brought me up against detail and precision, looking not just at the overall effect of a wall of exquisite carved stucco or painted tiles, but at the minute specifics of pattern, colour, how the lights falls or how the image changes when viewed from differing angles.

There is no conqueror but Allah - Alhambra
A second shift was the fact that this time I can read the Arabic inscriptions which are such a significant part of the decorative arts at the Alhambra. When one can read words, one’s eye is drawn to them in an entirely different way to when they are simply beautiful but incomprehensible squiggles in a larger pattern.

Thirdly, the company was very different. Last time, I was accompanied by a bunch of world-weary travellers who had seen umpteen impressive buildings the world over and who were prepared to be impressed by this one, but only so far. This time, one of my fellow visitors was a friend who, despite being ridiculously knowledgeable about the literature and especially poetry of Andalucia has travelled comparatively little, but more than this has, apparently as an integral part of his character, a beautifully childlike, open way of seeing the world and its glories. In addition to this, he is also an Arab, raised with the tales of Andalucia as part of his education and heritage, but because of his love for and specialisation in Arabic literature able to recite almost unbelievable quantities of poetry from the golden age of Al-Andalus (his abilities in this respect are truly astounding; I picked up a book of Andalucian lyrics and for every single first line I read out, he could continue the poem. Amazing).

Alhambra tiles
Seeing the Alhambra alongside him was a true privilege, witnessing the unabashed joy and emotion of someone seeing something so utterly essential to their intellectual and spiritual identity and appreciating it in such a fundamental way. Being in his presence as he marvelled at the visual wonders of the Nazrid palaces gave me new perspectives on the significance of this place and its cultural context for someone not of my own North-West European origins. For me, the Alhambra is a place of aesthetic virtuosity and of cultural embarrassment for the denial and destruction of Arabic heritage that my own culture has participated in, and an example of the stark contrast between the cultural productions of the Islamic and Christian civilisations of the time. In my current intellectual environment, it is also a symbol of the potential richness of societies built on co-existence rather than exclusivity. For him… well, I can’t really speak to that. I got some senses of it that day and in the following days. That’s for him to say. But watching him recite the poetry of medieval Andalucia, and later Arab poets’ responses to it, to himself, opened up a whole other context for this place and its beauty.

One comment on “Seeing the Alhambra

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